Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Herds, and Herd-Boundness, and the Horse/Human Herd

I did a post a while ago about whether horses experience us as members of a herd, and to what extent herd behavior and dynamics have application to our interactions with horses - if you're interested you'll find that post here.

I've been thinking recently about a different question involving horses and herds. I've had my horses at different barns over the years - at some they were turned out individually or perhaps with one other horse, often for several hours and not a full day. At other barns, including the one we are at now, the horses are turned out in herds where their companions are the same horses every day, all day.

I've noticed something odd - and perhaps it's specific to my horses and not to others - turnout in semi-permanent herds seems to make them more attached to their herd members and therefore more prone to being herd-bound. I've found horses on individual turnout or in occasional turnout with others to be less herd bound and more likely to be able to focus on their human partners for riding and work.

I've taken horses to shows in the past, large shows with many horses, and although they're always interested in being with other horses, they don't show the more herd-bound behaviors that my horses often show in a more "herdish" situation like our current barn. That said, if they get loose, they are likely to make their way back to "their" barn and "their" horses, although not necessarily any particular horse.

It seems to me that where there are horse herds available to bond with, the human-horse interaction is always somehow second-rate to the horse. That's not to say that horses can't work, and work well, in these circumstances, but there's a higher barrier to overcome in building a relationship with the horse, perhaps. It may vary by horse, by barn, and by horse/rider combination, and it also seems to me that mares are more prone to this sort of herd attachment - perhaps there's a connection to the maternal instinct.

All-day turnout on grass is supposed to make horses easier to work with and more relaxed, right? I haven't always found this to be the case - Maisie and Dawn, who are of course a TB cross and a TB, are if anything harder to work with in this environment - partly because of the herd and because our barn set-up makes it impossible to work with them consistently from day to day.

I've certainly been able to build more of a human-horse relationship with Maisie over the past several years, and have taken steps to do the same with Dawn, but to them at this point, the herd always is foremost. I'm wondering if Maisie will bond more strongly with me at the new barn since in some senses I will be her alternative to the herd, and can be her "safe place" in a new setting, although I do worry somewhat about depriving her of her herd.

* * * * * *

The vet comes back tomorrow to look at Maisie. The left front had no heat today for the first time - I'm hoping that means we'll get clearance for some sort of limited turnout or hand-walking tomorrow - she's been very patient (even more patient than I have!), but the poor thing really needs to get out of her stall.

Dawn and I haven't started our lungeing work yet - we've been having gale-force winds and Dawn's in raging heat - much squealing and kicking the stall (not to mention (unmentionable) behavior in the barn aisle requiring clean-up - you mare owners will get what I mean) - this did not seem like the best combination of circumstances for starting up again on our work.


  1. I think herd dynamics also depend on the horse , I think your theory is good , but also the inherrent personality of the horse in question plays a role , I have some horse that in a herd , or alone ,it doesn't matter they look to me as herd boss and thats it , otherscan bond with another horse in 15 minutes and are herd bounfd wherever

  2. I don't have the same experience that you with varying turnout regimes. I have always done pasture board. All I can say is that out of my three horses one was buddy sour. I bet there is more of a tendency to be buddy sour in group/pasture kept horses, though I have never owned a "barn" sour horse since my horses have never really lived in a stall. :)

    I think some horses are nervous and seek comfort. It depends though on their situation whether they seek it in the barn or just with their buds.

  3. I think too that it may depend on the horse. My Toby is very concerned about the herd and he has acted up badly on at least two occasions when I have ridden him out on the trail when he was reacting to leaving the other two horses. But, he is really well focused in the arena--but that might be a result of some 17 years of dressage training.

    Tucker and Chance rarely worry about the herd when they are worked or asked to be "on their own." And they do tend to respond to my presence when I am out there among them.

  4. I agree with being in the same buch, until this summer I never had a real herd bound horse, and suddenly my mare just wants to rush back to her buddies all the time, I can stop her, but I feel I don't have her complete attention. I usually mix up the bunches quite often, but now shes been with the same group since October and its very frusterating that I cant do anything different unless shes alone, and I dont want to do that.

  5. Without fail the owners of the horses on our farm are always amazed at how bonded the horses are with their friends, and how little interest they now have in their humans. Of course if you come bearing food then it is "hey mom, where have you been!!??" When the food is gone it becomes "don't let the door hit you on the way out." This truly upsets a couple of the owners and they take it very personally. I try to tell them it is a compliment, that their horse loves the retirement home they picked out for them.

    Sky developed a few herd bound tendencies when she first came. I doubt she'd ever lived with a group before. However all of my girls will calmly and quietly focus on their work with me now. I do think consistent work is key to this, just like you mentioned.

  6. I have been lucky in that I have never had a real herd bound horse, although Brandy would be the one that has the separation anxiety about being left alone. Even though she is pastured with my other mare Fritzy, and see's my sister's horse across the way, she is still very attached to my sister's horse. But not herd bound attached. If my sister and I go on a trail ride and my sister and her horse end up out of sight she will get nervous until she see's him again. She doesn't act this way with other horses. She knows him and feels comfortable with him.
    I am hoping Chance doesn't get herd bound, and she hasn't shown any signs at all, although she is alone in her pasture. I don't think that necessarily means they won't become herd bound at some point.
    Very interesting post, and definitely something to pay more attention to in the future!

  7. I've had two different experiences. My first horse wasn't herd bound, but Cibolo always finds more comfort with other horses. The rules and relationships there are crystal clear.

    But I've noticed it's a confidence thing too. When we're out alone, after about 15 minutes I can feel him relying on me (does that make sense?), particularly if we've gone through some sort of training on the ride. Even my having to get off and walk him through something, then getting back on. Once he pushes through that bubble with me, he's more likely to linger in my presence when we're back with horses.

    It reminds me of kids. They'd rather be with their friends, but then there are times they'd rather be with you, often triggered by insecurity, or warmth.

    Ok, now I'm not even sure I'm making sense. :D

    I think of the metaphor of traveling - some of us want to have our comfort zone challenged, some want to stay home. But many of us will enjoy traveling outside our culture if those experiences are unusually enriching. I wonder if the same is true for our horses.

  8. This hasn't proven true with our horses. They are quite bonded with one another with an established herd order, but all of them will easily leave the herd and often do so on their own.

    Our pastures are connected to paddocks on either side of the barn, so when they "turn out" they can always come back up to the barn if they choose. This arrangement makes it easy for one horse to come up and visit if he/she wants attention and they do that regularly.

    Yesterday the trimmer was here and the little donkeys met him at the barnyard gate, as usual, while our mare stood in the barn aisle (untied in any way) and waited for him. Those three generally get done first, but Keil Bay (out back with the other geldings) came in of his own accord and started banging on his stall door, ready for his trim.

    I do make efforts to keep everyone flexible in general by separating and dividing up the herd for a few hours periodically, including keeping one or two horses in stalls for a short while, since we don't close them in - I like to keep all the options in the range of "normal" for them.

    My sense is that we create the issues because of the way we keep the horses. Which sometimes, as in a boarding scenario, is done out of necessity. If boarding barns were designed a bit differently so the horses had more choices, I think we'd see some of the issues resolve themselves.

  9. Various things I have observed....

    Horses that are isolated from others will naturally bond to the human in their life easier. This is one reason some people prefer to isolate their horse (extreme example is the Russian trainer, Nevzorov).

    Horses that are used to leaving a group and working, and have been trained to leave, generally have no issue (this would have been my mare Pepper and for the most part my TB). However, changes in schedule, a move, changes in the herd number can upset even these well-balanced horses.

    My young filly who was raised in a herd is having to learn now that the horses leave, and I am having to introduce this to her in short bursts so she can learn self-calming behaviors.

    I've also found smaller herds have bigger issues when one leaves; the larger the herd, the fewer the issues.

    When given a choice a horse will pick a horse over a human. It is a very humbling experience and some don't like what that tells about their relationship with their horse. JMO.

  10. Interesting topic you bring up, since this is becoming an issue for us right now. My BO just changed around our herd arrangements & there are now a couple of mares in our herd. My TB thinks he is the wild stallion of the west & one of the mares does not help with the situation. She gets extremely stirred up when I try to take studmuffin out of the field & in turn, Mr. Studmuffin gets all stirred up because of her reaction. I'm still trying to figure out how best to handle the situation. Last time we tried this, we ended up moving back to an all gelding herd because it took 45 minutes to catch my guy because of the minx's antics. My TB seems very conflicted about obeying me (he seems to see me as big time herd leader)and doing what his natural urges are, and usually his natural urges win out. I'm thinking about going out there & simply haltering/unhaltering & giving a treat to keep the mares from thinking that I'm just out to take away their guy & to motivate Mosco to let me catch him. If you have any suggestions/ideas, please let me know!

  11. Forgot to also mention in my novel of a comment, my interesting painted pony's herd personality. He's the first horse I've ever seen who seems to avoid most interaction with the herd. He doesn't let himself get beat up because he just leaves the premises if things get aggressive; however, he doesn't behave submissively (other than by leaving). He just acts like he doesn't care enough to get involved in the situation. When they're out grazing, he will be on the other side of the pasture from the rest. Everyone at the barn tells me that when they go out to catch their horse, he's the one coming up to them & following them back to the gate. HOWEVER, if I take him away from his herd, he freaks out unless you're actively working with him (God forbid you leave him in the barn by himself!). My TB who is super into the herd dynamics couldn't care less once I take him away from the herd; his focus is on me (well, it WAS until this new mare situation; now everything is dfferent!). They're both a part of the same herd, which until this week was a stable group of horses.

  12. Good post Kate...
    I sure hope Maisie can get out soon too!

    I have all of the above examples, with my mare.
    She tends to trust/respect me and I seem to substitute for a leader of the herd of 2- when we go places alone. She will go alone with me.
    I have had all the examples of turn out and I agree; the smaller herd, now that In have that, she is really HERD bound here.
    And it is NOT who she is turned out with, Romeo the gelding she loves...funny enough...she craves the lead mare Panna. And Panna, would like to kill her- by the jealous behavior displayed. We did not attempt to turn them out together, till This spring recently.

    We made sure the boys were not at the fence line. We had them haltered...grazing, seeing each other, then turned them loose...totally funny. My mare stared and walked around Panna- 20 feet circle..Panna glanced but never made a move till Wa went to the water trough. Then Panna decided to move her away...thought there would be a cafuffle...as Wa stood her ground and Panna started to back up to her. Finally, Wa moved!

    So, though we have only turned them out once, Wa has her pegged, and wants her authority.

    Any time Wa is in her season..I am a pest by asking very much..and leaving the herd by riding within visual range- can be dangerous for me! I now hand walk and mount up elsewhere..and all goes well.
    Horses want horses!

  13. Kate, this was a curious post. I don't seem to have the same experience with my herd. We mix them up quite a bit although we no longer turn them all out together since the last kicking issue with our 2 mares. Each one of them is content no matter where they are with human or herd. They also greet us in the pasture when we enter then return to business. We also have had great experience with the round pen training we've done and it was NOT by force and seem to have willing partners who want to spend time with us. Teya is the only one I would consider a little herd bound when Romeo is taken out of the herd to work but she gets over it easily and returns to grazing. It could be that she can see him regardless of where he is on the farm? That's just the way it's laid out, not by our design. I just had two hackney ponies run by hitched to a cart and our entire herd ran over to greet them both coming and going. I wondered if they were intrigued by the ponies running a fast pace, their contraption or the human sitting in the cart? Who really knows? LOL!

  14. You are tangentially touching on something that's always bothered me about horse training. So much of training, even the more gentle "natural" methods, is like horse brainwashing. We take a horse away from her herd, convince her that we are the new herd, and then convince her to accept all the totally unnatural weird stuff we want to do.

    On the one hand, it's necessary. There would only be a few horses living in zoos if we couldn't work with them in some productive way. Horses are too expensive and time consuming for most people, doubly so if they're not useful in some way.

    But on the other hand... horses who prefer their humans have Stockholm Syndrome, don't they?

    I hope the vet had good news about Maisie!

  15. Very interesting discussion going on here. I've had Silk and Siete in three situations. First, they were in big turn-outs, able to greet their neighbors but not actually in a herd. They became very attached to these horses over the fence, like being herd bound. Then, they were in a herd of eight, which was very difficult. The lead mare fell in love with Silk and picked on Siete. Silk defended her daughter but Siete got beat up and I had to move her out. Silk never really bonded with the other horses and worried about Siete. Now, with the two of them in my backyard, I feel like I've really joined the herd and we are all getting along better and it is easier and more relaxed than it's ever been. The biggest difference for me is that they enjoy being with me more now than they ever have. I think that herd dynamics is fascinating, and I never tire of watching it.


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